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MORE HOMEWORK, PLEASE

The gloomy news the other day from the National Assessment of Educational Progress about young Americans' lack of proficiency in mathematics contains a precious nugget of information:

Children who study more learn more.Obvious? Maybe so. Yet American families and schools act as if they don't know it.

Too many American parents do not summon the backbone to turn off the TV. The National Assessment's extensive survey of students' habits and family backgrounds shows that 45 percent of American eighth-graders watch four or more hours of television a night. Our children's preference for escapist entertainment correlates with their flabby achievement.

Of those same eighth-graders, only 14 percent consistently demonstrate success with problems involving fractions, decimals, percentages and simple algebra, generally introduced in seventh grade. By the 12th grade, more students have mastered these seventh-grade skills. More, but still fewer than half: a mediocre 46 percent.

According to the National Assessment, the children who do best at math watch the least TV - and read the most. For every age group surveyed, the children reading five or fewer pages for school and homework daily did least well at math. Those reading more than 10 pages, of any subject, learned their math best.

As it is now, 74 percent of American eighth-graders do only an hour or less of homework every night in all subjects.

The lesson should be clear: Teachers need not apologize for requiring homework regularly. But they need help from parents who realize that reading and homework are central to education.